Although the concept of ray tracing had existed for a while before the actual announcement by NVIDIA, we hadn’t previously seen any real-time ray tracing from a single GPU.
This market-shifting move was strengthened by NVIDIA’s decision to release the best representation of its innovative technology right away.
Several years on, we’ve seen NVIDIA release RTX 4080 and RTX 4090 as some of the best-performing cards on the market. However, we do have to admit that, this time around, AMD finally put up a solid fight against NVIDIA with their RX 6000 Series GPUs.
However, this performance comes at a cost. Technology wasn’t the only thing being stretched to its limit.
The biggest source of apprehension toward a new GPU for NVIDIA’s latest generation of cards was the price. At the time, the best card available was the RTX 2080 Ti, which had an eye-watering price that kept away even the most loyal NVIDIA fans.
However, NVIDIA sought to rectify this. With the release of the better-performing RTX 3080 at $700, we could finally enjoy a top-of-the-line performance at a more reasonable price. There are also the mid-range RTX 3070 at $500 and RTX 3060 Ti at $400.
In 2022, ray tracing became even more expensive with the release of NVIDIA’s RTX 4000 Series. The RTX 4080, for example, got a 70% price increase ($1200) compared to the RTX 3080!
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What You Get With RTX
Ray tracing wasn’t the only addition NVIDIA included, but it was certainly the most hyped-up feature.
At first, the more cynical PC hardware enthusiasts were skeptical about the idea and were quick to criticize and make memes mocking the technology as soon as it was announced.
They were somewhat accurate in their assessment that ray tracing would not (always) bring a vast improvement in the looks department. However, on closer inspection, even those hard-set in their beliefs had to admit that it brought visual refinements.
How It Works
In the past, we could see reflections and lighting effects that were implemented, but the truth is that those were part of an elaborate smoke and mirrors illusion. The static lighting effect would be hard-coded to show reflections and shadows that could look nice, but it wasn’t the real deal.
The game developers had to devise ways to make their games look properly shaded and illuminated using these tricks. The fact that they often did so successfully is a testament to their inventive and innovative approaches.
RTX brings true real-time light particle simulation to the table. The in-game world is rendered dynamically, allowing for far more realistic and immersive visuals.
These visual effects can now be rendered so accurately that we’re slowly but steadily moving towards hyper-realistic video game graphics.
When light particles and reflections are calculated with RTX, the engine considers the surface material that light is reflecting off.
For example, light reflection is rendered differently if the reflecting surface is water, as opposed to glass. Similarly, the light will look different when hitting a marble floor or sand.
Below is a tech demo for ray tracing capabilities, showcased for Battlefield V at CES 2019.
Interestingly, RTX wasn’t the first technology to provide its audience with the magic of ray tracing. In fact, most modern movies with high-budget CGI effects feature ray tracing.
Although The Compleat Angler from 1979, which was produced by Bell Labs engineer Turner Whitted, is credited as the first use of ray tracing, it wasn’t until Pixar’s Monsters University that the technology was fully adopted in 2013.
So how come Pixar did it in 2013, and gamers had to wait until 2018?
Prerendered ray tracing vs. real-time ray tracing
The answer is simple. What Pixar did is completely different from the ray tracing we see in games. Pixar (or any other CGI animation studio) can prerender every single scene, which can take hours, weeks, or even months to process.
Once all those scenes are ready, they can be edited together and turned into a movie such as Monsters University.
In contrast, visuals in video games with ray tracing are processed in real time. RTX 2000, 3000, and RX 6000 GPUs process ray tracing constantly, which is why it has such a significant impact on in-game performance. In games such as Metro: Exodus, the average FPS could drop by 40% or more and might cause stuttering.
We also need to consider that ray tracing in video games is minimal compared to some ray-traced scenes in animated movies. An RTX 3000 or RX 6000 GPU would need months to process a complicated ray-traced scene. It would be impossible to do it in real time.
The manner scenes are ray traced with RTX GPUs is also exceedingly distinct compared to animated movie scenes.
The camera of the player will follow a path through one pixel to find the object behind it and to the source of light. Ray tracing also takes into account whether the object’s exposure to light is slightly changed or fully blocked. Here is a helpful illustration of how it works.
This is accomplished using a bounding volume hierarchy traversal which, as the name suggests, is an algorithm for traversing a BVH tree structure. Although this greatly reduces the computational requirement, there is still a very noticeable surplus.
GPUs that don’t have additional ray tracing hardware would be required to use shaders, which would create a tremendous bottleneck.
Enter RT cores.
NVIDIA’s simple solution to that added computational requirement is to assign dedicated cores to those calculations. The RT cores hold two separate units where one handles the bounding box tests, and the other performs ray-triangle intersection tests. This significantly reduces the strain on the GPU and allows it to perform other tasks more effectively.
Deep Learning Super Sampling – DLSS
NVIDIA introduced several advancements for AI calculations with its RTX cards, but the most prominent use can be seen with DLSS.
DLSS is a machine learning-based upscaling technology that uses RTX’s Tensor Cores. The first iteration of DLSS brought extra FPS in games, but at a cost of image fidelity, flickering, ghosting, and more.
But, with time, NVIDIA is frequently updating this feature, improving in all aspects, especially in image quality.
The most recent big update is DLSS 3.0 or Frame Generation, which is only available to RTX 4000 Series GPUs.
Frame Generation can improve in-game speed by creating extra frames using AI, making ray tracing more available.
DLSS 3.0 is still in its early stages, so there aren’t a lot of games that support it. But, we’re certain it will become a lot more popular and all future RTX GPUs will benefit from it.
Don’t worry though, NVIDIA’s future updates on DLSS (excluding Frame Generation) will be available to older RTX generations.
Big Tech Equals Big Price
Despite what the internet might say about it, there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging how amazing NVIDIA’s technology is in their RTX series.
What isn’t so amazing is that ray tracing is becoming more and more demanding, so getting a decent framerate is hard, even for the best GPUs out there.
On a more positive note, the industry is thoroughly impressed by the tech of ray tracing and DLSS. As time passes, we’re likely to see this tech being utilized to its full potential more often.
As NVIDIA is sitting firmly on its GPU throne, they have the power to dictate the price points for its cards. When they introduce the gaming world to groundbreaking technology such as real-time ray tracing, they can’t be blamed for taking advantage and testing the limits of their consumers’ wallets.
One might look at the RTX 4090 and its $1600 cost and judge it as even more costly than the RTX 3090. And its little brother, the RTX 4080, is now more costly than all of its predecessors at $1200.
We have yet to see the performance and pricing of mid-range GPUs like the RTX 4060 or RTX 4070, but we imagine they’ll end up pricier than previous generations.
Even AMD is taking a similar approach to NVIDIA with their RDNA 3 GPUs. The top-end GPUs, RX 7900 XT and RX 7900 XTX are priced $900 and $1000, respectively.
On release, RTX might have been above the expected and comfortable price range, but RTX 3000 found its footing in terms of both performance and price. However, NVIDIA worsened things with the RTX 4000 Series, making this one of the most expensive GPU generations in history.
Still, considering the DLSS technology and the graphical improvement of ray tracing, we can say they are undoubtedly worth the money.